My 5 Most Important Books

Each issue, Newsweek features a well known personality who lists the five most important books they’ve read, along with a short blurb about why each book was important to them.  That got me to thinking about which five books most influenced me and so here they are:

Why I Am Not A Christian

I read this when I was a junior in high school.  Cambridge philosopher Bertrand Russell’s very straightforward dissection and refutation of the “arguments” for God were impressive at the time and I was pleased to be able to defend my lack of faith from an intellectual standpoint.  However, in college, other readings made it evident that “faith” cannot ever result from intellectual analysis or argument; belief in God is a true psychological and emotional “leap of faith” and those on either side of the faith chasm will never be able to convince the other because they are speaking completely different “languages.”

The Rebel

Albert Camus’ 1951 work on nihilism and revolution, and the need for limits to avoid ending up with a new form of tyranny, was an eye opener for an 18-year old budding radical.  (Camus won the 1957 Nobel Prize for Literature.)  A book that I thought would stoke the radical flames turned out to have a moderating influence.  Although I was still ready for the revolution, I was just a bit skeptical about what might follow it.

The Structure of Scientific Revolution

Required reading in a college course, Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 analysis of how  “accepted”  scientific paradigms, undermined by anomalies, undergo “revolutionary” overthrow followed by the establishment of a new paradigm provided me a structure for thinking about political revolution in terms of paradigm, anomaly, revolution and new paradigm.  (Of course, Kuhn’s structure  mimics Hegel’s philosophy of thesis, antithesis and synthesis which Marx also borrowed to arrive at dialectical materialism, the philosophical basis for communism.)

The Gulag Achipelago

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s indictment of the Soviet forced labor camps is undoubtedly the most difficult and exhausting book I’ve ever read.  It’s one thing to read statistics about how many millions perished; but the descriptions of individual humiliation and degradation, all in a very matter-of-fact bureaucratic environment, is emotionally taxing.  And it was an easy step from how the Soviet government was an enemy of freedom to the idea that all governments are potentially the enemy of freedom.  I think it was this book, which I read in the late 70’s, that emotionally prepared me for the political road to completly rejecting government.  But the book that philosophically prepared me for that journey was….

Moral Man, Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics

This book is undoubtedly the most important one influencing my thinking.  Although I did not realize it then, reading progressive theologian Rheinhold Niebuhr’s 1932 work while in college planted the seed of my eventual transformation into an anarchist politically and a non-joiner socially.

Niebuhr convincingly made the case that only individuals are capable of acting morally.  Groups and institutions take on a collective dynamic that invariably squashes individualism in favor of conformity and sets self-preservation, and preferably advancement, of the group as the highest good.  (Even the Christian Church, an institution established for “good”, descended into murder when dealing with the “heretical” Protestant movement.)

That is why I trust no institution to “do the right thing”;  morality is outside the nature or comprehension of any institution, including government.  Technically, institutions are amoral, not immoral.  And in a way that is worse, because immoral suggests an understanding of what is moral and so leaves open the possibility of morality.  Amoral has no such understanding and is therefore irredeemable.  Consequently, government is irredeemable.

What books have been most influential to your thinking? Share them through a comment.

(Next Sunday: while my reading has gone downhill over the years, I’ve always been a film fan.  So next week I’ll tell you about my long love affair with the silver screen.)


7 responses to “My 5 Most Important Books

  1. Deep stuff, Anarchist. I can’t say that any books were influential for me in the way you mean it. But I’ll think about it. I read The Rebel, and almost everything else Camus ever wrote, and also The Gulag Archipelago and almost everything Solzhenitsyn wrote also (man, was that a struggle.) If you ever want to test your powers of perseverance, try reading his book Cancer Ward. Note that the two books on your list that I’ve read are fiction…lol. Would Kafka be anywhere in your top 10?

  2. My memory on the The Rebel may be blurred, but I thought it was a philosophical essay.

    As for Gulag, that’s a bit grayer, but I’d call it historical. Maybe the zeks are constructed, but they way they were treated is not fiction.

  3. Ah yes, you’re right on both counts. I had forgotten The Rebel, but I recalled Gulag Archipelago as a novel based on Solzhenitsyn’s own experiences in the camps.

  4. Very impressive reading list for an Anarchist. Do you ever read anything for just fun?

    I have a serious question for you, has there ever been a civilized country that has existed without government? Or for that matter an uncivilized one? Even the Indians had government and laws.

    I don’t mean a fictional one like in Atlas Shrugged but a real one.

    Reality is that without being able to defend oneself against agressive humans who want what others have, existance is very unlikely.

    I do not see humans living without some structure of law, even if its bad. (bad being a very subjective term)

  5. PTFan1…if you noticed, the latest reading date in that list was in the late 70’s. Since then, it’s been very light reading, if there’s even been any reading at all. I guess I burned out… (And at the time, those books were “enjoyable” from an intellectual perspective if not “fun” from a recreational perspective)

    Maybe I’ve seen reading as “learning” and movies as “recreation”. But that’s next week’s post! If I survive the freeze….

    As for your serious question, I’ll reply by asking that you look at history. How long was monarchism THE form of government? Gosh, when Christ was alive, there was a King and an Emperor, etc. And that was what…4000+ years ago? And as late as the 1800’s monarchy was still THE form of government.

    Can you imagine the reply if during those millennia anyone suggested that one day most folks would have a vote and a say in their government? They’d say you were a lunatic. Impossible! And given the situation at that time, they’d have been right.

    All forms of political and social organization depend on the technological, educational, etc. environment. Representative democracy has been around what… a historical nanosecond of 225 years? Compared to how many millennia of monarchism?

    But one day, as society continues to evolve, so will political and social organization and representative democracy will seem seem as quaint as monarchism and the Geneva Conventions. We can take the first steps today!

    You keep asking about “past” evidence. Yet you are not a monarchist. And if the past is the future, then why are we not still in monarchy? And there was no “past” evidence for representative democracy in 1776.

    Look to the future! The past is not the future…..

    I’m sorry if you cannot imagine society with no government. Many could not imagine heavier than heck flying machines. But we have them.

    So too with anarchism; it’s time will come, when the conditions are appropriate. Government as we know it will wither away, in a way Lenin could not imagine. Vladimir, not John.
    (That phonetic joke doesn’t work in print.)

    Happy New Year! I agonizingly await details of your resolution at the appropriate time.

  6. Anarchist
    Happy New Year to you too 🙂 I have a few more i’s to dot before i go public with my resolution.

    “And there was no “past” evidence for representative democracy in 1776. ”

    Although I could point out that Rome had a republic with a senate, the beginnings of constitutional government in England (1215) with the Magna Charta and the Iroquois Indians (1525)are frequently credited with “influence” on the US Constitution,

    These points are tangential to my argument which is this: humans have evolved technology considerably and will continue to, baring catastrophic reactions to them. But they are unable to evolve peace. We are still as bloody as ever. Your argument seems to be based on faith that mankind can escape its humanity, set aside cultural and religious prejudices and come together.

    I believe that mankind will endure, but that we will always have limitations because we are human.

    Faith strikes me as far too charitable a wish, like religion. My first concern is survival not theory. Call me irresponsible it is just how I think:)

    I do have hope that the internet will lessen world tensions among its peoples and we can understand one another better but we absolutely must look at history as a revelation of how things have gotten to where they are and of why people think the way they do.

    Yes we have evolved some from Monarchy to representative democracies but there are still terrorists and despots with enough power todestroy us all.

    We ain’t close yet, just closer.

    “the farther backward you can look the farther forward you can see”

    Winston Churchill

  7. Well PT, if you have just a few i’s to dot, you’re further along than I am. I haven’t turned the first page on either of those books. The plan was to start this week but I put it off to next week.

    I was wondering if you were going to bring up some “tadpole” examples. I actually expected Athens. I knew you’d not be a pushover….lol!

    And I’m not saying human nature will be changed. Only that technology will one day develop enough to thwart it without need for government. A modern day chastity belt if you will….lol!

    Now I don’t want to get into an upcoming post but….remember “Clockwork Orange?” I’ll take Vivaldi for my conditioning, although Rossini is nice too…lol!

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